The Past’s Past

Thomas Laqueur

  • Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History by Jay Winter
    Cambridge, 310 pp, £12.95, September 1996, ISBN 0 521 49682 9

We understand explicitly, as Nietzsche remarked in the Genealogy of Morals, what earlier generations felt in their bones: ‘Only that which does not cease to hurt remains in memory.’ Remembering and mourning demand that the past is somehow kept present; they demand recollection as the pain of immediate loss diminishes. And yet we – that is, we moderns – are also acutely aware of just how utterly past the past is, how historical it is, how even the worst horrors lose their sting. As Walt Whitman wrote of the Civil War:

Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must
                               in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night
incessantly softly wash again and again, and
             ever again this soiled world ...

Jay Winter has written an elegy. But it is not for those who died by ‘deeds of carnage’: it is for those who mourned them. Or rather he has written a lamentation for their capacity to remember – to mourn – in a manner lost to survivors of 1939-45 and their progeny. Like E.P. Thompson, Winter wants to rescue the past from the condescension of the present. But his past is, in fact, the past’s past, its intimacy with tradition: ‘Before the Death Camps, and the thermonuclear cloud, most men and women were still able to reach back into their “traditional” cultural heritage to express amazement and anger, bewilderment and compassion, in the face of war and the losses it brought in its wake.’ If this book has ‘drawn attention to their achievement, so human and so sad’, it will, he tells us, have partially realised its aim.

‘Achievement’ is perhaps not quite the right word. Winter’s images belie agency: ‘the backward gaze of so many writers, artists, poets, politicians, soldiers and everyday families ... reflected the universality of grief and mourning.’ A certain mundane functionalism – ‘a complex traditional vocabulary of mourning flourished ... largely because it helped mediate bereavement’ – leaches some of the pathos out of ‘so human and so sad’. But there is no question about his reverence for an ancient, universal and unchanging cultural landscape, in which memories ‘do not cease to hurt’, but not unbearably.

This is a book about ‘enduring’ languages of mourning, about ‘the enduring appeal’ of spiritualism and ‘traditional motifs’ related to the ‘universality of bereavement’; about artists who ‘expressed in enduring ways the enormity of wars’ and who used ‘older forms and images’ to produce ‘enduring visions of the Great War’. It is about ‘timeless messages’ (the possibility of the dead returning to life on earth) and ‘timeless war memorials’. It is about specific commemorative art that attains a ‘universality unattainable in other memorials’, a ‘humanist tradition still robustly intact’, an ‘English mystical tradition’ noted for its ‘robustness’. It is about ‘common languages’, ‘an ancient set of beliefs about revelation, divine justice and the nature of catastrophe’, and about writers who spoke in the voices of the Prophets.

The other side of Winter’s argument is that while the terrors and losses of the Great War of 1914-18 could still be experienced through timeless, coherent and universal cultural forms, those of 1939-45 shattered that possibility. His version of this view is offered in the language of Julia Kristeva, but it falls squarely in a broad tradition which regards the Holocaust as a, or rather as the, fundamental rupture in history, a chasm which exposes as never before the absolute limits of language, art and epistemology. Adorno famously announced that ‘it is barbarous to write poetry after Auschwitz’; Saul Friedlander has recently initiated a major scholarly debate with his argument that the Holocaust is beyond representation, is ‘unspeakable’; Lyotard regards the condition of Post-Modernity as born in the ashes of Nazi horrors. Thus, while World War One left culture with its capacity to produce a humane compassion intact, the 1939-45 conflict, in Kristeva’s words, ‘did damage to ... our system of perception and representation. As if overtaxed or destroyed by too powerful a breaker, our symbolic means find themselves hollowed out, nearly wiped out, paralysed.’

Winter returns to this theme again and again. Cultural forms that had in the past consoled survivors abruptly shattered. ‘The literary metaphor of the apocalypse’, for example, which had ‘linked the 1914-18 war with an earlier time’, ‘could accommodate virtually every human catastrophe except the ultimate one’, the Holocaust. ‘The enduring appeal of spiritualism’, which had allowed those who mourned the dead of the Great War to ‘transcend their loss’ by communicating with the departed, faded after the Second World War. Before 1939-45 commemorative art harked back to earlier, comforting conventions; afterwards, it looked forward to ‘pure abstraction’. Tradition, in Winter’s account, thus came safely through the trauma of the trenches. The fragmentation, irony and incoherence of Modernism (or is it Post-Modernism? – he equivocates) were kept at bay until the century’s second great catastrophe.

This is not the common view. The title alone of Paul Fussell’s enormously influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), for example, proclaims the contrary. So does the concluding line – ‘Never such innocence again’ – of Philip Larkin’s 1960 poem ‘MCMXIV’, invoking the summer haze, the ‘dark-haired children at play’, the

     moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark ...

of the war’s early days. No one thought it would be a four-year-long bloodbath:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since.

And, more recently, Samuel Hynes’s magisterial A War Imagined (1990) argues that the generation of poets, painters and novelists who lived through the war ‘rejected the values of the society’ that had sent them to fight and rendered their ‘sense of a gap in history’ in ‘images of fragmentation and ruin, all expressing a fracture in time and space that separated the present from the past’. In short, if the Great War did not actually give birth to Modernism it powerfully mobilised elements of a prewar cultural crisis and gave it new, self-conscious definition predicated on rupture.

Against this orthodoxy several scholars – the art historians Kenneth Silver and Romi Golan, for example – have recently argued that, on the contrary, French art in the Twenties and Thirties was far more conservative than Modernist. Winter writes in this revisionist tradition but attacks on a broader front. He has devoted a scholarly lifetime to the study of the Great War and is now its leading Anglo-American historian. Whether one accepts his conclusions or not they are advanced with a breathtaking erudition that the proponents of orthodoxy will have to engage with.

He begins by pointing out, rightly, that the case for rupture is based largely, if not entirely, on the canonical texts of British Modernism. The Waste Land and To the Lighthouse, however, do not define the cultural penumbra of the Great War. Those who make the case also generalise egregiously. What could ‘modern memory’ possibly mean? (One might accuse Winter of the same sin in his use of the term ‘tradition’.) It ignores a vast outpouring of both high and popular cultural productions which stand entirely outside, or in tension with, the sensibility Hynes or Fussell describe. In fact, the distinction itself is often tenuous because, as Winter astutely points out, the interests of the avant garde often followed rather than led popular, historically rooted, culture.

Winter expands enormously the horizons of the wartime and postwar culture of mourning and commemoration. In the first place, he draws attention to artists like Georges Rouault who have always been difficult to assimilate to the Modernist canon and who paint out of a traditional Christian conviction that art heals, but only as the expression of submission to Christ and faith in his Resurrection. He also adduces a whole range of commemorative practices that others simply ignore and which clearly have little if anything to do with Modernism. Germans, for example, could buy books that described how to make crosses and other signs of mourning from nails. A whole range of memorials, from little cast-iron statues of Hindenburg to the pietàs in French communes and the crosses on English village greens, use thoroughly traditional artistic vocabularies to express thoroughly traditional sentiments. Popular artistic genres like the so-called Épinal prints, which had once thrived on representing Napoleon as hero, now showed the Emperor standing guard over an exhausted sentry of the Great War. Indeed, Winter argues that the prints were so popular precisely because they mobilised a stable past in the face of ‘a war which threatened to destroy all that was familiar’.

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